Michael Randle is Chair of the Commonweal Trustees. In this two-part post, we share some of the details of his extraordinary life and work.
Read Part 2 here
You were born in the 1930s, Michael. What would you say has changed most about the world during your lifetime? What hasn’t changed at all?
I was born in late December in 1933. Some of the major events in my lifetime have been the Second World War, followed immediately by the start of the Cold War, and with it the threat of a nuclear holocaust.
Then in 1989 came the collapse of authoritarian-style communism in Eastern Europe, followed by the break-up of the Soviet Union itself, and the end, for a time at least, of the Cold War.
Today, unfortunately, we are witnessing the revival of the Cold War in what is in some respects a more threatening form.
No less significant historically has been the dissolution of empires – the British Empire among them – and the end of the apartheid regime in South Africa.
On another level there have been transformative social and political movements, such as the worldwide campaign against nuclear weapons, the US Civil Rights movement, the campaign for women’s equality, and anti-discrimination campaigns in various fields.
Particularly striking about so many of the campaigns against oppression and injustice has been the central role of civil nonviolent struggle.
You’re a trustee of Commonweal, which exists to inspire and inform nonviolence activists of all kinds. How would you describe your position in relation to nonviolence? Are you against violence in all circumstances? Are you a pacifist?
My father was a conscientious objector during the Second World War so I was aware of the argument about the morality of war.
I also spent some formative early years with my maternal grandparents and aunt in Ireland and learnt about the injustices of colonial and quasi-colonial rule.
I attended Catholic schools – one run by Dominican nuns in Ireland and another by Benedictine monks in England – and I learned about and imbibed the notion of ‘just war’. For war to be justified, not only must the cause be just but also the way it is conducted. The indiscriminate killing of civilians is never justified.
In time, that led me to the conviction, which I still firmly hold, that the use of (or preparations to use) nuclear weapons or any weapons of mass destruction cannot be justified.
Then came the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Back in England, I remember an aunt on my father’s side explaining to me that a whole city had been wiped out by a single bomb and how frightened that made me feel. Later, fear turned into a determination to join the opposition to such weapons.
In 1951, I registered as a conscientious objector to military service and became a pacifist. I was strongly influenced in making that decision by learning about Gandhi’s nonviolent campaigns against British rule and becoming convinced that this method provided an alternative to war and violence.
My conviction was strengthened by reading literature on the power of nonviolence by such writers as Richard Gregg, Bart de Ligt and Aldous Huxley.
My position has shifted to some extent over time. I can see there are circumstances in which the discriminate use of force, even violence, is justified.
For example, in 2005 a Bradford policewoman was killed after being called out to a burglary. I couldn’t say that the police who responded to the shooting should have gone in unarmed to tackle someone who had already shot and killed one of their unarmed colleagues.
But while civil resistance is not the answer in every situation, it has shown its potential as an alternative to violence in dealing with a whole range of situations, from ousting dictatorial regimes – in Europe, Africa, Asia and Latin America – to changing particular unjust laws and social practices.
Since the early 1990s there has also been a growing academic literature attempting to understand its workings.
For more examples, see the two print volumes that were the forerunner to the Guide to Civil Resistance and the Guide itself.
There are cases where civil resistance alone can’t resolve the situation, for example in Syria. But its potential is what I and others have been promoting.
Commonweal is 60 this year. So is CND, and as a result you’ve been featuring in television coverage and taking part in various events, including one coming up at Bradford Literature Festival in July, because of your involvement at the very start of CND. How did that involvement come about?
I wasn’t one of the founder members of CND as an organisation but I became involved in it through the direct action wing of the broader anti-war movement.
What direct action did you undertake?
As a young conscientious objector appearing before a tribunal in 1952 I learned about a group that was initially called Operation Gandhi, centred on people working on the pacifist paper Peace News and coordinated by its then deputy editor (later editor), Hugh Brock. (It changed its name after a few months to the Non-violent Resistance Group.)
Its aim was to use nonviolent/Gandhian methods to oppose the war machine itself, particularly weapons of mass destruction.
Operation Gandhi’s first public demonstration in January 1952 was a sit-down outside the Old War Office Building in Whitehall.
I read about it in Peace News and immediately contacted Hugh Brock. The group was mainly active in the early-to-mid-1950s and organised a series of demonstrations, starting in April 1952, at what was then called the Atomic Energy Research Establishment, which later acknowledged its true purpose by changing its name to the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment.
I was among about 20 or 30 people who took a coach from London to Aldermaston, marched around the perimeter of the base and held a public meeting in Aldermaston village.
There were also demonstrations at RAF Mildenhall, where the US deployed planes carrying nuclear weapons, at the Microbiological Research Establishment at Porton Down, and for a second time at Aldermaston in 1953.
Most of these didn’t involve nonviolent direct action, though at Mildenhall two young women, Connie Jones and Dorothy Morton, lay down in front of the main entrance to the base. However, they weren’t arrested or removed because there were several other entrances.
In 1956, I proposed a group march from Vienna to the Hungarian border, and into Hungary itself, to express the support of Western pacifists for the nonviolent forms of resistance against the Soviet military intervention taking place there, and to call on Russian troops not to fire on unarmed demonstrators.
I ended up attempting to carry out that action alone and got as far as the border with Hungary. I was wearing a placard with the slogan (in German, Hungarian and English) ‘Freedom not through war, but through non-violent means’ and handing out leaflets in the three languages with the same message.
(Gene Sharp, who co-drafted the leaflet, was to become one of the leading academic exponents of civil resistance.)
I didn’t manage to get into Hungary, however, as I was stopped at the Austrian checkpoint, driven back to Vienna and ordered to leave within two days.
Operation Gandhi/the Non-violent Resistance Group had another function, which came to prove its worth in later years. Whenever people passed through London who had been involved in nonviolent resistance in other countries, Hugh Brock invited them to meet and talk with us about their experiences.
Among these, on separate occasions, were two African Americans, Bayard Rustin and Bill Sutherland. Both had served time in prison for draft refusal and were involved in the civil rights and peace movement in the US.
They continued to work actively with the anti-war movement in Britain and participated in projects organised by the the Direct Action Committee (or DAC) Against Nuclear War and the Committee of 100, including, in Bayard’s case, their first Aldermaston March, at Easter 1958.
Bayard was an important advisor to Martin Luther and in 1963 coordinated the March on Washington, at which Martin Luther King Jr made his famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.
An initiative that had a lasting impact was Quaker pacifist Harold Steele’s attempt in 1957 to hire a boat in Japan and sail with around 50 volunteers to the proposed British H-bomb testing site at Christmas Island in the Pacific.
He was supported organisationally by Hugh Brock and others at Peace News, and endorsed by several well-known personalities, including Bertrand Russell.
The bomb was tested before the intervention could take place, but at a meeting in London in November, the volunteers and supporters formed a Committee for Direct Action Against Nuclear War (later called the Direct Action Committee Against Nuclear War).
At the suggestion of Hugh Brock and another former member of the Non-violent Resistance Group, Lawrence Brown, the group decided its first action would be a four-day march from London to Aldermaston – over the Easter weekend of 1958. This was the first full-scale Aldermaston March, attracting some 8,000 to 10,000 people at the initial and final rallies.
It was also the DAC that adopted the now-famous nuclear disarmament symbol, designed by artist Gerald Holtom. CND didn’t organise the march, but it endorsed it, and the initial rally in Trafalgar Square was addressed by Canon John Collins, Chair of CND, and Michael Foot, MP, a member of its Executive.
CND subsequently adopted Holtom’s symbol. The original sketches are now housed at Special Collections in Bradford University’s JB Priestley Library.
The following December, in 1958, the DAC organised two successive occupations of the US Thor Rocket Base at RAF North Pickenham, near Norwich, in East Anglia, which was the location of the Thor intermediate-range missiles with nuclear warheads that the US was building in Britain.
On the second occasion, the police intervened and arrested the demonstrators. That was my own first experience of arrest, followed by two short spells of imprisonment – a week in Norwich prison over the Christmas period and two weeks in Brixton.
The following year, at the suggestion of DAC Secretary April Carter, the DAC initiated an international direct action expedition to try to prevent the French government from testing an atomic bomb at its test site near Reggane in the Algerian Sahara.
The plan was to drive volunteers into the site and challenge the French government. Our main partners were Ghana CND, and the Committee for Nonviolent Action (CNVA) in the US.
A public appeal by Ghana CND, with the backing of the Ghanaian government, raised money to buy a lorry and two Land Rovers to cross the Sahara via Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso) and French Sudan (now Mali) to Algeria.
Bill Sutherland had settled in Ghana a few years previously and was Private Secretary to the Minister of Finance, Gbedemah. In that capacity he was able to give us advice and help.
Bayard Rustin flew over from the US to help organise and take part in the expedition, and the veteran US pacifist AJ Muste also came to coordinate the project and, together with Bayard, provided nonviolent training for the participants.
The team of 19 comprised people from Ghana, Nigeria, Basutoland (now Lesotho), France and Britain. The team member from Basutoland was Ntsu Mokhehle, leader of the Basutoland National Congress Party, who was to become the Prime Minister of Lesotho in the early 1990s.
The artist Francis Hoyland, Reverend Michael Scott and I were the British participants. Scott was a veteran peace and anti-apartheid campaigner who set up the Africa Bureau in London and had been barred from returning to South Africa, where he had been working to oppose racial discrimination and injustice.
Although the team never reached Reggane, the expedition helped rouse public opinion in Africa against nuclear weapons, and was followed up by a pan-African conference, called by President Nkrumah, of representatives of freedom movements and the few independent African states then in existence. Sympathetic individuals and organisations outside Africa were also invited.
The conference condemned both imperialism and what it termed ‘nuclear imperialism’.
I stayed on in Ghana to help organise the conference, which was followed by efforts to set up a nonviolent training centre near Accra.
I returned to Britain in October 1960 to become the secretary of the newly formed Committee of 100, launched by Bertrand Russell and Reverend Michael Scott with the aim of organising civil disobedience against the bomb on a mass scale.
Read Part 2 here
Want to know more?
Hear Michael speak at the Bradford Literature Festival event ‘Bradford vs The Bomb’, 4th July 2018